Do graves in the Western world generally face east?

I was driving with a friend today and she asked me if all graveyards face the same direction.

It was something I’d never thought about before, but after a little reflection it seemed to me that as far as I could remember all the graveyards I’ve seen face the east.

A little more thought gave me the notion that this might be so because east is the direction of the rising sun and/or Jerusalem: rebirth and resurrection, wonders I?

I couldn’t find much on the subject in a few quick google searches this evening, but what I did find seemed to bear out my thoughts.

So, a couple of questions: Am I right about this; do most Western/Christian (and what about Jewish burial places?) cemeteries face the east? And, if so, when and where did the practice begin?

All the cemetaries I’ve ever been in had the graves facing every which way. Admittedly, I’ve been in a grand total of one cemetary, but it was a pretty old one (I think the earliest grave dates to the 1850’s or so), so if there was any sort of tradition it’d probably have followed it.

OK, on reading your OP again I see that I didn’t really answer your question. How does one decide which way a cemetary “faces”, by where the entrance is? If so, then the old cemetary I’ve been in faced vaugely south, and the newer one attached to it faced west. If not, then what?

This page links the east-west orientation with tradition arising from Biblical descriptions of the Second Coming.

In Auckland, I’ve seen eastward facing gravestones in the older cemeteries, aside from one in my suburb which faces north and east-west, and another further out that has all sorts of directions as space is filled.

British (and other)archaeologists often use an east west alignment as an indicator of a christian burial in roman and dark age burials; in later periods it is more likely to be random, I believe, but as our beloved Time Team point out;

’even the classic indication of a Christian burial – an east-west alignment – is only a rough guide, since the same practice was used by some pagans, either deliberately or simply by chance.’

SF worldbuilding at

There was an article recently, I believe in the Raleigh, North Carolina News and Observer, where the author wrote about old cemetaries, and noted that traditionally most persons were buried east-to-west, although persons of ill-repute were buried north-to-south. At one cemetary he came across one of the latter, and said to his companion that “this guy must have done something bad”. An old women nearby overheard him, and replied, “We don’t talk about it”.

One decides, I’d think, by which direction the date(s) and inscription(s) face on the majority of the headstones.

whitetho, I ran across a mention of the north-south burial alignment of “persons of ill-repute” in the little bit I found on my own last night. I find that idea fascinating.

Ice Wolf and eburacum45, thanks for the links. They give me hope that an indepth look at this question exists somewhere.

Hmm, do we have any cemetery specialists/forensic theologians (Polycarp, Libertarian, do you know anything about this topic?) among our members? Perhaps one will drop in.

If it’s of any help, there’s a little cemetary near my town, in California, that faces west.

And some of the graves at the Presidio in San Francisco face south, and others face Northwest. I doubt they’d deliberately work in any symbolism for the guys buried there.

It’s not a very consistent rule, but as I understand it, Christian graves are traditionally laid out with the headstone facing east so that when the dead are resurrected at the end of the world, they will rise facing the direction of Jerusalem (as the OP speculates)–because this is where the Second Coming of Christ would be happening (obviously this would only apply to cemeteries that are west of Jerusalem).

The idea is that the dead will rise up like a sleeping person does from their bed. With their head to the west and their feet to the east, this means they’ll sit up facing east. Kind of a creepy image, I’ll grant you.

The problem is that this “graves facing east” thing isn’t an official rule, and although most of the cemeteries that I can think of do indeed have the graves laid out “facing” east, there are often exceptions. In many towns, you’ll find at least one grave that was laid out facing west, and usually the local kids will tell you that’s a witch’s grave–obviously, that person would rise from the dead facing the wrong way.

But because the rule is not a universal one (I don’t think it’s ever been mandated by church law, only by local tradition), there’s no reason to assume that the west-facing corpse really was a witch in their mortal life. More likely, their family either wasn’t aware of that tradition or didn’t think it was that important.

And I don’t think this tradition is confined to Christian burial sites, either–in other cultures, facing east would have more to do with the rising sun.

But Jerusalem isn’t to the east, unless you are buried in the Mediterranean Sea. From where I sit it is approximately west-north-west. Did the Ethiopic Christians face their graves to the north? Russian Christians face theirs to the south? Germans face their to the south-east?

If the pattern is consistently to the East then it seems more likely that the graves are facing the sunrise than Jerusalem.


My family “owns” a rural, family graveyard in a small mountain town in Virginia. Most of my deceased family members are burried here. All of the graves face east, in my opinion, so that they can rise with the sun on judgement day. Two of my relatives’ graves were installed facing west. We had a crane come in a few years ago and reverse them so that they also face east. I think it is a nice tradition.

I think it’s the bodies in graves that face east, not the cemetary itself.

My Uncle worked for several years after his retirement in a cemetary. His job was to mark the location for the workers to dig a grave. (He said the hardest part was finding the empty spots, since often in the past the cemetary workers weren’t very careful about accurately recording just which spots in various family plots had been used.)

He said that Christian tradition was that the body should be buried facing the rising sun. Thus pointed East (or a bit southeast, given our latitude in Minnesota). This meant that graves were dug aligned east-west, and the coffin placed sometimes with the head nearest the grave marker, and sometimes the feet.

This was generally fairly easy to do, since the layout of the cemetary, and the roads thru it, were planned this way. And they had started out with the graves this way, a hundred years ago, so most family plots were generally aligned east-west.

I’m from a New England town first settled in the 1660s. The oldest cemetery in the region (established 1713/14) is laid out with the graves running predominantly in a north-south orientation. So is the second oldest (ca. 1790s). One established in the 1830s is east/west.

The most prestigious cemetery in town, established in 1850 by the great-grandfather of President FDR, is a “rural style” cemetery with winding paths. Folks here are facing every which way. (Although there is a new section of this cemetery, laid out just a few years ago, which is a grid that’s east/west.)

Actually, come to think of it, most of the graves is all four places are more or less oriented in relation to the outside road. The north/south graves are perpendicular to an east/west road and the east/west graves are perpendicular to a north/south road.